LONDON - Turkish troops and Ankara-backed Free Syrian Army rebel fighters launched an assault Friday on al-Bab, a strategic Syrian town northeast of Aleppo which rival Kurdish militias aligned with the U.S. also want to seize from the Islamic State terror group.
Syrian opposition sources on the ground told VOA that 20 civilians were killed in the town Friday by airstrikes, which they believe were carried out by both Turkish and Russian military jets. Such a joint action, if true, would be a major development suggesting that Damascus and Moscow have reached some kind of agreement about Turkish military intervention in northern Syria.
Al-Bab is the Islamic State's last major stronghold in the eastern Aleppo countryside. An assault on the town has been expected for months, part of Turkey's four-month-old Euphrates Shield operation to push both jihadists and Kurdish militia fighters away from the Syrian border area. Ankara fears the Kurdish militiamen of the People's Protection Units, or YPG, are determined to carve out an independent state in northern Syria.
In a statement, Turkish military officials said their warplanes destroyed nearly a dozen IS targets and that their forces had seized control of a highway linking al-Bab, 46 kilometers from Aleppo, and Manbij, another major regional town, currently held by Kurdish-led forces. On Thursday, Turkish media reported that Ankara had deployed an extra 300 commandos to the eastern Aleppo countryside.
For weeks, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has signaled his eagerness for Euphrates Shield forces to seize al-Bab from IS, saying that once it is taken, Turkish forces will then turn their attention to ejecting Kurdish-dominated militias from Manbij.
"About 20 civilians were killed in airstrikes," Barry Abdulattif, an opposition activist, told VOA. He said sources in the town reported that Russian jets also carried out airstrikes.
The London-based monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists and observers inside the war-torn country, confirmed there had been civilian deaths, including "no less than 12 civilians from three families [who] were killed, while others were wounded."
However, the group made no mention of the participation of Russian jets. It believes "Turkish warplanes and a bombardment by Turkish forces" from the outskirts of the besieged town were to blame for the civilian deaths.
Ever since Erdogan and Russian leader Vladimir Putin discussed the Syrian war by telephone late last month, there has been increasing conjecture about the possibility of a covert agreement over the fate of al-Bab between Ankara and Moscow, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's main foreign backer.
The two presidents spoke after the Turkish military claimed a Syrian warplane targeted Turkish soldiers in northern Syria, killing three of them. That incident had raised fears of an escalation, or even a direct fight between Syria and Turkey on an already complex battlefield.
Turkish officials issued dire warnings after the claimed airstrikes and threatened retaliation. But after Erdogan and Putin spoke on November 25, talk of retaliation stopped. A Kremlin statement said their discussion on Syria was constructive, and that they agreed to continue an active dialogue "to coordinate efforts against international terrorism."
"My suspicion since August has been that Putin and Erdogan have a partition deal," said James Miller, a Syria and Russia analyst and managing editor of the online magazine The Interpreter. He said he thinks Erdogan and Putin have "cut a deal where Turkey gets to control the area north of Aleppo, and Assad and Putin get to recapture Aleppo, and Syria gets carved up.
"Since Assad does not have enough ground troops to capture and hold all of Syria anyway, it seems that both sides are getting at least part of what they want," he added.
Turkey's Euphrates Shield operation has complicated Washington's bid to use Kurdish-led forces to launch a full-scale assault on the jihadists' self-proclaimed Syrian capital of Raqqa, and has maneuvered the U.S. and Turkey into ever greater cross-purposes in Syria, say Western diplomats and analysts.
The Turks disapprove of American support for the YPG, which it sees as a terrorist militia and an offshoot of an outlawed separatist Kurdish movement in Turkey. Clashes have intensified in recent weeks in northern Syria between anti-Assad Arab Syrian rebels backed by Turkey and the Kurds, aggravating already strained relations between Washington and Ankara, undermining the push on Raqqa and further complicating a multi-player battlefield.
On Thursday, U.S. Air Force Colonel John Dorrian, spokesman for the anti-IS coalition, told reporters in a video briefing from Baghdad that the coalition is facilitating joint talks with Turkey and the Syrian Kurdish forces in order to calm tensions. "Every party to these discussions has an overriding interest in common. This is the defeat of ISIS, an enemy that threatens us all," Dorrian added.
"These meetings are the starting points in addressing a challenging situation," Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency quoted Dorrian as saying.
A senior U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP that Kurdish forces had slowed their advance toward Raqqa because they were worried Turks would attack them. "Their biggest concern is the Turks behind them ... and that's what caused them to hesitate to move forward," the American official was quoted as saying.